Frank Lloyd Wright's Zimmerman House

This house is not that old, but it belongs to a different age. There is no television, no computer, and no winking green and red LED light sources on all the electronic devices. And there’s also no sprawling space, no walk-in closets, media room, or a kitchen with a granite island the size of an aircraft carrier.

It is a small house—that’s what almost all the visitors say. But at almost seventeen hundred square feet, a “Usonian deluxe,” it is actually more than two-thirds larger than the average new house of its day. And yet, the rooms and halls are small. Many Americans now have walk-in closets in their “master suites” that are far larger than the Zimmermans’ bedroom. The garden room is the one grand—six-hundred-square-foot—gesture.

Visitors also find it too dark inside. But that’s because we’ve lost an age-old sensitivity to shadows, says Startup. “We’re overexposed. And we don’t live with enough shadows,” she says, referring to Tanizaki Jun’ichiro-’s famous essay about spiritual repose, In Praise of Shadows (1933). “Look at the way light is modulated in this house by the texture of the materials. It’s so much more restful and peaceful.”

In short, the Zimmerman House just seems alien to many visitors. Of the 2,650 people who don the blue laboratory booties for a tour each year, Startup says that half don’t like it. They wouldn’t move in if you paid them. My own entirely unscientific poll surprised me: People hated it. “That awful house! Those people were prisoners in their own home,” one visitor told me. “He bullied them. Can you imagine?” They thought Frank Lloyd Wright’s patrons were dopey pawns confined to little rooms with everything built in—everything Frank Lloyd Wright and no room for the hapless inhabitant, the homeowner. This is not dislike or indifference, but a kind of white-hot hatred. “It’s a visceral response,” says Startup. The Zimmerman House offended them. Why? Is Wright’s democratic design totalitarian?

House of surveillance

This is not a house to have a fight in; it’s not a house where you’d build a model airplane at the kitchen table (on a hobby board or wax paper). It’s not a house for toddlers with all that plastic Playskool stuff. It’s a house for a refined dinner party with polite talk here and over there. The Zimmerman house is quiet and cultured.

Here the Zimmermans hosted formal evenings of live music each Tuesday. Guests followed the music by reading the score. They sat in the high-backed banquettes in the garden room (see Fig. 9), or tried to. Finding the banquettes as uncomfortable as a church pew, they would lie down. (John Geiger, the Taliesin apprentice who oversaw the construction had suggested a redesign for the banquette-pews.)1

In the Zimmerman House all is out in the open like a New England town common or a meetinghouse—all pews in daylight, all open to view. There is no retreat, no layers of privacy. This house will allow no secrets. People are unnerved by this taint of surveillance. This Usonian house might as well be a lab experiment with two-way mirrors to observe the test subjects.

I had regarded the house as an elegant object, neatly crafted; each item, each brick and art object united in one story. But are houses ever just one story? Is it this we don’t like about new houses and big modern interiors? One idea. We are Play-Doh squeezed through the mold.

by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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